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Sunday, March 24, 2013
Twins story: Joe Mauer still the man

By Anna McDonald
Special to ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On a day when Joe Mauer has a lot of work to catch up on because he played in the World Baseball Classic, he takes some time to sign autographs. As Mauer signs baseball after baseball, a lady tells him about her grandchildren and how she knows Mauer will just love having twins. She says she's excited for him and can't wait to watch him as a dad. It's as if she believes Mauer is part of her extended family.

People who say we shouldn't have heroes anymore have never spent much time with the Twins catcher. Mauer is one of the last of a dying breed, the perfect hometown hero.

He grew up in St. Paul and was selected by the Twins as the first overall pick in the 2001 draft. For Mauer, playing for the Twins is not just a job.

"It's all I've ever known," Mauer said about playing in his hometown.

Mauer knows there is a lot responsibility resting on his shoulders this year. He will be handling the pitching staff again this year, the Twins need him to consistently get on base and they need his bat in the lineup every day. Plus, he has an added charge this year -- Mauer and his wife, Maddie, are expecting twins. He takes it all in stride and doesn't ask for much help, though he says that may change.

Mauer
Joe Mauer hit .319 with 10 home runs and 85 RBIs in 2012.
"We'll need a lot of help here come the end of the summer," Mauer said. "We're very excited. I can't wait."

Mauer has had a busy spring with his participation in the World Baseball Classic and now back with the Twins he is trying to get to know the many new pitchers on the Twins staff in the last few weeks of spring training. As he showed in the WBC, where he hit .429, his bat appears ready. Last season, he led the majors with a .416 on-base percentage.

Mauer says when he is at the plate this year he is going to try and do exactly what the situation calls for because he knows if he can find a way to get on base the guys batting behind him, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau, will drive him home.

"I just try to have good at-bats," Mauer said. "Obviously getting hits is a great thing but getting on base and making the defense work a little bit is kind of the goal of manufacturing runs. Just try to work the counts and get on base any way I can."

Tom Brunansky, the Twins' new hitting coach, said Mauer’s approach to the plate is first and foremost a gift. That's not to say Mauer doesn't work hard, but as Brunansky describes Mauer's talent as a "great gift from God" he talks about Mauer in a tone that suggests it's a talent that doesn't come along often.

"He's [also] pretty smooth and solid in his approach," Brunansky added. "He doesn't get too excited. He doesn't get all riled up. Hitters, we tend to get ourselves out. There's a key word that we like to use and that's trust. He trusts his ability to be able to do the things he wants to do. ... The thing about Joe is that he understands his zone and he's not afraid to hit with two strikes. And it comes back to that word of trust. He has no fear in the fact that he trusts his ability."

Last season, three of the top 10 batting averages in the majors were from catchers, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Mauer. The position of catcher has more wear and tear on the body than other positions on the field, yet with the Mauer being a pivotal part of the lineup the Twins have to find ways to keep him in there every day.

In 2012 Mauer caught 74 games, played first base for 30 games and was the DH 42 times. Manager Ron Gardenhire says what position Mauer plays will be a day-to-day decision. He doesn't have a set number of games he expects Mauer to catch.

"I always go and check with him if he catches two days in a row," Gardenhire said. "There’s going to be one of those days where he's going to get foul tips and really beat up and those are the days I guard [him] and I talk to him. It's all about conversations on how he is feeling and keeping his bat in the lineup."

Mauer says he wants to be behind the plate every chance he can get. He still loves being a catcher.

"Being back there, making those decisions on every pitch, one or two pitches in a game can matter a whole bunch," he said. "So being in the middle of that, your teammates looking for you to make those tough decisions, I love being the guy to do that. Yeah, it's tough on your body. It can be a little mentally draining but I wouldn't have it any other way."

Mauer enjoys showing his pitchers that he's there for them. As a catcher he wants to do whatever is best for his pitchers.

"You're trying to get outs to help your team win," Mauer said. "I think everybody understands that here. With the new guys it's going to take a little time for them to see what I'm all about and for me to see what they are all about. So, it's a fun, unique relationship; you have to have a lot of trust involved."

He says he builds trust by knowing his pitchers' strengths. Each day is different -- a pitcher may not have his best stuff one day, so Mauer figures out what is working that game to get the best pitching performance.

"That's the thing I've learned over the years," Mauer said. "You've got to be prepared and call the right pitch but the main thing is having your pitcher convinced about that pitch. That might not necessarily be your favorite pitch at that point but if he's convinced [about the pitch] I'd rather have him throw it then maybe something else he might not be as confident with."

Vance Worley, the right-hander acquired from Philadelphia this offseason, worked with Mauer for the first time on Friday against the Yankees. Worley had a rough outing, pitching five innings and giving up eight hits and five runs. However, Worley says it won't take him much time to get to know Mauer, but that it's just a matter of "learning each other."

"Today he just came out and said just make sure you work a little bit more down," Worley said. "Just [Mauer] coming out here and trying to slow it down for you a little bit, that's the biggest thing he can do."

Last year Twins catchers had a tough time catching guys on the basepaths, as their caught stealing percentage, 18 percent, was last in the American League. (Mauer's caught stealing percentage was 25 percent, the lowest of his career.) At times in 2012 Mauer's mechanics and the position he threw from behind the plate looked a little different from his form in his earlier years.

"I don't know if he's throwing different but I think he's had some injuries that have changed some of his mechanics," Gardenhire said. "His arm is still there, he's still got a cannon. I think the tendencies are when you are not able to work on things like that a lot you get a little long with your actions."

Gardenhire says he is happy to have former major league catcher Terry Steinbach on the Twins coaching staff this year. He's going to be working with Mauer all year long.

"The one thing [Steinbach] has been talking to [Mauer] about is being a little shorter with everything and he's working on it," Gardenhire said. "So there's change and that has to happen as you get a little older, too."

Gardenhire says he worries about a lot of things but "not Joe."

His manager trusts him. His coaches trust him to do what the team needs, his pitchers trust him and as he walks by the fans waiting for an autograph you can tell they trust him, too. They know Mauer will treat them well -- the hometown kid who made it big.

"You know, to have my grandparents at every home game for the last nine years, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's nice, definitely thankful that I'm in this position. I'm excited for another year."

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. Follow her on Twitter @Anna_McDonald.